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Harrington, petitioning and the construction of public opinion

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Harrington, petitioning and the construction of public opinion
Edward Vallance (University of Roehampton)
Franco-British History seminar
8 November 2012

Abstract: Historians have noted that the republic depicted in Harrington’s ’Oceana’ (1656) allowed little room for political debate beyond the confines of the senate. However, ‘Oceana’ did permit the localities to petition Parliament, allowing some channel for the expression of the popular voice, albeit in a form framed by the phylarchs, ‘the princes of the Tribes’. The Harringtonian circle itself engaged in petitioning activity in 1659, as the restoration of the Rump Parliament in May 1659 revived hopes of a new republican constitution. These political interventions were part of a wider petitioning campaign by the ‘well-affected’ in support of a republican settlement. Ruth Mayers, in her work on the revived English Commonwealth, has argued that these petitions provide   evidence of popular support for the republic. However, Harrington’s own view of the value of this petitioning activity, as expressed in Valerius and Publicola (1659) was much more pessimistic, seeing the exercise as essentially fruitless.

Harrington_-_Oceana_(Toland_1737)

Harrington’s disappointment was understandable: the petitioning activity of 1659 bore little resemblance to the orderly scheme of political communication from periphery to centre mapped in ‘Oceana’. The cliques of the   ‘well-affected’ who submitted supportive petitions represented both a far more exclusive political constituency than the Harringtonians had hoped would be involved in settling a new Commonwealth, and a far more varied cross-section of the political nation than the ’natural aristocracy’ that Harrington believed alone had the right to ‘debate’. Moreover, this petitioning activity was arguably orchestrated by the Rump and its propagandists rather than representing grassroots support for the Commonwealth. Nonetheless, this paper will suggest that the use of petitioning in 1659 to legitimate both the government and its programme set an important precedent that was followed by the Crown into the Restoration era.

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